Unilever's Thomas Lingard: What we can learn from James Bond

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Thomas Lingard, global climate advocacy and sustainability strategy director at Unilever, shared his passion for James Bond films and the parallels with business action on climate change, as part of the Talanoa Dialogue at the U.N. Climate Conference in Bonn this May.

While many aspects of the "business and climate change" story are about business cases, or technical issues, I was determined to tell it as an action-adventure story.

I thought for a while. I thought about the archetypal action-adventure stories and James Bond films came quickly to mind. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that they were actually a great way to think about what is happening now in business.

Consider the evidence:

1. The threat

In the James Bond stories, there’s always a clear threat. It’s usually some crazy terrorist organization that’s about to unleash havoc on the world, usually within 90 minutes of the film starting. And in our business and climate change story, there’s also a clear threat — and that threat is climate change. It’s the catastrophic impact that it will have on our customers, on our factories, on our agricultural value chains and our supply base if we don’t rapidly scale up action, peaking global emissions by 2020 and achieving a net zero economy by 2050.

2. The characters

In the James Bond films, the main character is the eponymous lone secret agent. But this is where our business and climate change story is even more exciting. Rather than one lone agent, thousands of businesses are taking action on climate change. If you look at the We Mean Business platform, you’ll see that over 1,200 significant commitments have been made by businesses. These businesses have a combined market capital of $16.7 trillion — equivalent to 20 percent of the global economy.

Over 410 companies have committed to science-based targets to reduce their emissions footprint in line with the Paris Agreement already — nearly 1,000 more are going to do so before 2020. But it’s more than just talk. Forward-looking businesses are already shifting their energy supplies. Unilever, for example, has 109 sites in 36 countries where the factories are supplied by 100 percent renewable grid electricity. We have factories on every continent doing that, and our ambition is to be carbon positive in our operations by 2030, supporting the generation of more renewable energy than we use, and making the surplus available to the communities in which we operate.

3. The role of government

The last comparison is really where the magic happens, and why I believe this is such a relevant story for the Talanoa Dialogue. Both our James Bond story and our "business and climate change" story have this similarity, which is that neither character can succeed without the critical role of the government.

In the James Bond films, Bond is always called in for a meeting with the government, somewhere in London at the start of the film. When he arrives he gets three things:

First, he gets direction — he’s told what the threat is, where to go to fix it and the deadline for fixing it.

Second, he’s given some tools — perhaps a watch that becomes a laser, a car that becomes a submarine, or a pen that fires a poison dart — which will enable him to be more effective in his mission.

Third, and perhaps most significant, the government gives him his trademark "License to Kill." And this is fundamental because it changes the operating framework in which he is able to act. His "license to kill" means he is permitted to cause disruption to the status quo in order to achieve the necessary outcome — the higher goal of saving humanity from doom and destruction.

In the "business and climate change" story it’s exactly the same. First, we need this unequivocally clear direction from government. We need this in the form of long-term, loud and legal policies that set the direction of travel so we are clear where we are going: a peaking of global emissions in 2020, and steady decline to a net-zero emission economy by 2050.

Second, we need the right policy tools. Things such as carbon pricing; tighter emissions standards for power stations, vehicles and appliances; laws to protect forests and guaranteeing rights of indigenous people; and regulations that support financial disclosure of climate related financial risks in line with Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TFCD). These policy tools — and others like them — can allow business already standing ready to act, to scale up and do more.

Right now we have some of this direction, some of these tools, in some parts of the world. But we need consistent global direction, all of these tools, in all parts of the world. The Paris Agreement was a brilliant start in bringing the world together around a common agenda.  Business responded accordingly, with pledges of action and a heightened sense of optimism and ambition.

But we are nearly three years since the Paris Agreement. We are in the implementation phase and yet still find ourselves needing more clarity, more certainty and a greater sense of urgency, in the form of clearer signals from governments. For it is the suite of policy measures that together have the transformative potential to change the operating environment for business; to move from the status quo to a new scenario in which ever more momentum and action to drive down emissions cities, agriculture and energy would emerge, and investment in low or zero carbon technologies would rocket.

The good news is that governments have the opportunity to unleash this transformation. They have the opportunity to do this by sending a really clear signal that enhanced ambition of NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions) will come by 2020.

Specifically, they have the opportunity to send that signal at COP24 in Katowice. And if they do, they might just give business a "license to kill climate change."

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